Rules of the Road: Is it legal to go through a late yellow light?

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 28, 2014 

Question: I see more and more people going through intersections on a late yellow, to the point that they're still in the middle of the intersection when the light turns green for cross traffic. When I mentioned this to a friend, I was told it is legal as long as you enter the intersection before the light turns red. But when I went through driver's training, I was taught that when you approach an intersection and the signal turns yellow, you should stop if you can do so safely, i.e. if you are far enough back from the intersection that stopping doesn't create a danger for a car behind you. Which approach is correct?

Answer: This is actually a difficult question to answer. The best/safest approach is to follow what you were taught in drivers' eduction: "you should stop if you can do so safely." The problem with being in the intersection when the light turns green is frequently those drivers that like to enter on the "late yellow" are the same drivers that will anticipate the green signal and will start into the intersection as, or as soon as, the signal turns green. This occasionally causes issues. The yellow signal is to warn drivers that the traffic signal is changing and they should stop, not accelerate to "beat the light." Will you get a ticket for being in the intersection when the light changes? Probably not, unless you are unable to clear the intersection and block traffic.

Q: Is it legal for the panhandlers who sit at the off-ramp locations to continually press the crosswalk button but never cross the roadway? They only do it to cause the exiting vehicles to have to stop, which is convenient for the panhandlers.

A: : I have not found anything in Washington law that makes it illegal to not cross the road after activating the crosswalk button.

ABOUT RULES OF THE ROAD

Rules of the Road is a regular column with questions and answers on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices.

Answers come from David Wright, a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who is now serving on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

For previous Rules of the Road columns or to ask a question, go to bellinghamherald.com/traffic.

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